On the afternoon of May 2, 2013, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI departed Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace where he had been staying since his resignation on February 28, to return to the Vatican. His stay at Castel Gandolfo had always been intended to be temporary; the first pope emeritus in seven centuries wanted to remove himself from the Vatican during the papal conclave to ensure that his presence would not affect the deliberations of the cardinal-electors.
Greeted at the Vatican heliport by Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, and Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, Benedict's secretary of state (who is maintaining that position temporarily under Pope Francis), as well as by Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, the president of Vatican City, and several other high-ranking officials in the government of Vatican City, the Pope Emeritus was accompanied by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, his longtime assistant who remains prefect of the papal household under the current pope.
From the heliport, the Pope Emeritus went directly to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery behind Saint Peter's Basilica, where he intends to spend the rest of his life in prayer and contemplation. He was met at the doorway to the monastery by Pope Francis, and Vatican Radio, in the written version of its report on Benedict's return, has a touching picture of the two popes grasping hands in friendship. (A larger version of the photo can be found here.) Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict then went to the small chapel in the monastery to pray together.
Benedict's life at Mater Ecclesiae will be quiet, accompanied only by Archbishop Gänswein and four consecrated women (not nuns, as some news sources have incorrectly reported) who will run the household. In addition to the small chapel where he will celebrate Mass and pray, the Pope Emeritus has a piano and a library stocked with the books that kept close as both cardinal and pope. As Robert Moynihan reports, upon seeing his new home, Benedict declared, "The house is comfortable, one can work well here." Benedict can also look forward to visits from his older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, for whom a guest bedroom has been prepared.
Mater Ecclesiae is about a 15-minute walk from the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where Pope Francis has chosen to live, and I cannot help but wonder whether Francis, who enjoys walking, might frequently find himself making impromptu visits to his predecessor—something which would have been considerably harder to do had he chosen to occupy the papal apartments used by every pope since Pius X in 1903.
In any case, the presence of two popes—one retired, one reigning—in the Vatican is unprecedented. What it may mean for the future is hard to tell, but it is surely a blessing for the Catholic Church to have been served, and to continue to be served, by two such towering figures whose love for Christ shines forth in all of their words and actions.
(Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI blesses the faithful from the window of Castel Gandolfo, February 28, 2013. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)